Look, the simple truth is that most of us have some racist tendencies but we make every effort to whittle them down and try to get better. There are too many, however, who are openly racists and seem to take some overt pride in it. Then there are those, lots of those, who say and believe things that really are racists but they don’t see themselves as being racists.
I remember being in an pizza parlor in Cincinnati once and a black family came in and sat at a nearby table. My mother, who I never thought of as being racist, said, “Huh, you wouldn’t think those people would like this kind of food.” I don’t think mom thought she was saying anything bad but in my mind she might as well of said, “Shit, I thought all they liked was fried chicken and watermelon.”
Yesterday the nation and world witnessed Kathy Miller, a Trump campaign leader from Ohio, claim that racism in America didn’t exist before president Obama came along. She went on to insist this nation had no racist past, no civil rights movement, no racial riots in Detroit in 1967, or no one named Rodney King was beaten by an out of control pack of Los Angeles cops in 1991.
Well last week I had a similar conversation with a person I’ve known since childhood. We grew up in the same Greenfield, knew the same adults, and went to the same school with the same kids, black and white. Ours was a racially integrated school and we really did seem to get along pretty well. But outside of school and off fields of sport things were quite different.
Out community was not segregated by law but it was segregate by convention. Blacks and whites didn’t mingle. I don’t know where most blacks worked or where they recreated after work, but I know it wasn’t where the white people the whites were. You didn’t find blacks eating in the community’s restaurants or drinking in its bars. Black kids didn’t hang out where white teenagers hung out and at school dances they pretty much occupied their own corner of the gymnasium. While housing wasn’t legally segregated there again, was a convention. There were essentially two areas of town that blacks were expected to live in and I can still recall when one black couple dared purchase a home in a traditionally all white area.
My friend remembers all of this but he doesn’t acknowledge that it was racist. He remembers a Greenfield of racial harmony where he and his black teammates played the game, admired their coaches, shared in the wins and defeats, and departed friends. When they’ve gotten together over the decades it these things they have relived. What he hasn’t done over the years is to sit down with his black team mates and engage in an open discussion of how they saw that time.
Over the years I’ve had opportunity to do that. Because I’m a historian I’ve sought out blacks and asked for their input on what they’s experienced in their lives. I’ve listened to what they experienced from white students and their teachers. I listened to the reception received by black band members when the band showed up to perform at Coney Island. I’ve listened to stories about black children being told by their parents where and when they were permitted to go in our town. There was a convention or unwritten code of expectations that existed and every black person in Greenfield was expected to know it and abide.
When Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, when the US Army had to see that nine blacks children were permitted to enter Little Rock High School, when the Freedom Riders rode buses through Alabama and black students in Greensboro, North Carolina fought to get a milkshake at Woolworth lunch counter, blacks in Greenfield may have outwardly kept quiet while “our” whites assumed “our” blacks would ever do such things. Well, in my conversations with “our” blacks I’ve learned they were totally on the side of the Civil Rights movement and were cheering for its champions.
The man I had this discussion with is a great person. He loves people, he loves his family, he loves his town, he loves his nation. But there is a part of him that can’t deal with what life was really like during his formative years. And when blacks today speak out in reaction to what black Americans are still having to endure, he has no basis on which to reconcile it. He can’t understand where all this anger is coming from because in his mind it didn’t exist back in the 1950s.
Like the Trump’s Kathy Miller, he seems to have not been paying attention to all that has happened since the beginning of European involvement in North America. We have a racial problem that goes back to the early 1600s and while it has been far worse than today, we haven’t come close to that “come to Jesus” discussion about what it is and how to deal with it. So many of us Americans are still fighting with ourselves over if racism even exist in America.
Matter of fact, many, if not most, of the national arguments we Americans are having in 2016 are the same ones we were having in 1776. We haven’t gotten past enough issues to say we are post anything, let along post racial.